Peter Singer and Effective Altruism: What’s Wrong?

In Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save [1] and 2015 book, The Most Good You Can Do[2] he makes moral arguments on why people in richer nations should donate money to charities to end poverty in developing nations. He is a proponent of Effective Altruism, the idea that people in rich nations should give their disposable income to charities through evidence-based processes to ensure maximum positive impact.

I comment on Singer’s moral philosophy in my book The Justice Demand which will be published in 2016. This would be a critique from a Christian worldview. I won’t let the cat out of the bag right now. Recently, a friend shared on Facebook an interesting article critiquing Singer and Effective Altruism from a socialist perspective, at a post-structural level: Matthew Snow’s “Against Charity” in Jacobin magazine. He describes Effective Altruism as such: “Effective Altruists treat charities as black boxes — money goes in, good consequences come out. The desire to achieve salutary results becomes an imperative to give money to charities”. The essence of his critique, as I understand it is, Effective Altruism is ultimately futile because it further buttresses the capitalistic structures which inevitably result in poverty in the first place. His arguments are as follows:

1. Capital actually has what the imperiled stranger needs. Capitalist institutions collectively own virtually all the necessities that individuals must purchase in order to survive.

2. Capital creates “drowning strangers.” The inability of companies to profit from those with little or no purchasing power is the reason why so many poor people need altruists to save them.

3. The above points mean that a concerned non-capitalist can only do good by donating to charity, thus subsidizing capitalists’ profiting from basic necessities, or altogether ignore those in need. Subsidizing capital accumulation thus becomes the only readily available way for most to act on compassion for others.

The critique above is interesting. I do think that another critical perspective could be considered from a communitarian, relational justice perspective. What if instead of resigning to the notion that people who want to do good can only do so by donating money to professional do-gooders, these people are committed to building just communities? Communities of people who resist the negative aspects of capitalistic market norms but who nevertheless continue to benefit from the positive aspects of capitalism. What if instead of merely outsourcing doing good, people are transformed to have a wholly different attitude, paradigm and conception of what just and good lifestyles are in the first place? What if justice seekers do so not by dismantling social structures and systems but transforming local communities? What would that look like?

[1] Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (Random House, 2009).

[2] Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (Yale University Press, 2015).

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